Go get yourself comfortable; this could take a while.
By now, 5 days after the horror of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, we’re pretty well steeped in the hysterical rhetoric coming from both “sides” of the political spectrum; the “left” is screaming for rational gun control legislation and humane mental health services while the “right” is advocating arming teachers and eliminating “gun-free zones.” The fighting is as predictable as it is pointless; background checks wouldn’t have prevented this tragedy, the guns used in the shooting were obtained legally, guns are not the problem, you can’t plan for the crazy people, there’s evil in the world and there’s nothing you can do about it, The Second Amendment….
Blah, blah, blah.
This is not the conversation we should be having. We don’t have a gun problem; we have a humanity problem.
Are there reasonable things that we should be doing as concerns guns and weaponry that we’re not doing? Of course there are. I’m not going to go into them now, though; I’m betting you’re sick of hearing about them (I am) and anyone who knows me, even if they only know me here, knows that I have both feet firmly planted in the pro-gun control camp.
I don’t want to talk about guns or lobbies or the NRA. I want to talk about culture.
A few months ago, my grandfather observed how difficult raising kids is “nowadays.” I kind of called him on that; I said that raising kids is just as hard now as it was when he had kids, or when he was a kid himself, and that it might in fact be easier given all the modern conveniences and health care and safety equipment. He shut me down, though, and this is how he did it; “When I was a kid, we didn’t have a telephone, but my mother would know that I’d done something wrong before I even made it home. The whole neighborhood watched out for everyone else’s kids. If I did something I wasn’t supposed to, my friends’ mother would take it out of me at the scene, then my mother would take it out of me when I got home. When my kids were little, it was still like that. No one looks out for anyone else anymore; they’re all too worried about lawsuits.”
While I’m not sure it’s the lawsuits that people are worried about, Grampa’s point has merit; we don’t look out for each other anymore. We have drawn very clear and very rugged lines around our lives, such that it is the rare person who will step up to correct another person’s child, or even to offer to help someone else.
Case in point; the other day, I was in a department store. Little kids love to hide in the clothes racks (I did, and I bet you did, too), and, look at that! I found a small person in a clothes rack. I looked up and didn’t see an accompanying adult, so I asked the kid where her grown up was and stayed with her until said grown-up appeared (which, I might add, was not immediately, and when the grown-up did arrive, she was not in the state of panic I would have expected of a parent of a small child in a department store around Christmastime, but I digress). She scolded the child and ignored me completely, which left me feeling as though the help I offered by staying with the kid (or, not for nothing, discovering her whereabouts in the first place) was both unnecessary and unwelcome.
I have been “spoken to” many times in the course of my professional life for “caring too much” about my students; for being interested in them as human beings, for listening to them when they spoke about their lives or their frustrations or their goals, for offering advice and support and, yes, love. It wasn’t my “job” to nurture them as people, it was my job to stuff “knowledge” into their heads, to provide opportunities for them to spit that knowledge back out, and to assess their competence in doing so. I was told that it was the counselor’s job to take care of the kids’ emotional needs, but then listened as that same counselor said, out loud and in public, that he didn’t “do” crying kids. A facebook friend observed that “Hell, I remember when everything shifted. Prior to my junior year in HS (that was 83-84?) the counselors went from just that, someone you could go to get help or just talk, into someone who helped with ONLY curriculum and college placement. Now they see a kid with a problem they call the idiots at CPS and all hope is lost for the poor child!”
I don’t think he’s wrong.
We don’t take care of each other, plain and simple. We aren’t allowed to check in to make sure that things are okay at home; pediatricians were asking, not too long ago, for legal permission to inquire about guns in the home. They were told ‘no.’ When a teacher sees something in a kid’s behavior that raises red flags, we’re told that we have to wait until there’s a clear and obvious crisis situation before we’re allowed to call someone else, who may or may not intervene. We mind our own business and keep our heads down.
The message that sends is that there’s no one to go to if you need help. If you’re in trouble, if you’re confused or frightened, if you’re bullied or harassed, if you’re feeling hopeless, there’s nowhere for you to go unless you’re threatening yourself or others; the situation needs to be escalated to crisis mode before there are any systems in place to help you, and by then it may be too late. There’s nothing that can be done; you just have to suck it up and deal with it because you know what? Life is hard.
I’m calling bullshit.
The problem we have isn’t with guns, though guns are certainly an exacerbating factor. The problem we have is that we don’t know how to manage a basic level of common human decency. We don’t know how to care about one another, and we don’t know how to accept that care without its being perceived as some sort of judgment about our fitness. We’re so wrapped up in ourselves – our rights, our privileges, our perceived greatness -that we fail to recognize that our lives are inextricably wrapped up in others’ lives, too. We listen to our politicians use violent rhetoric and watch them work tirelessly to further disadvantage those who are already behind. Our entertainment glorifies violence and the loner; the rugged individual who keeps to himself and does whatever he has to do – up to and including hurting others – to ‘get the job done.’ We have, as a culture, completely swallowed the myth of isolation; that we are alone in the world, that the only things we get are the things we get for ourselves, and that everyone else should, at best, be viewed with suspicion.
I reject that mentality wholesale. We can totally fix this gun problem and this mental health problem by just being decent to each other. Let teachers care for their students. Ask for help when you need it (and accept it when it’s offered). Be willing to think and look critically at the habits and traditions you follow, the ways you solve problems, and the ways you talk to and treat other people. Think cooperation before competition, and abandon the idea that someone else’s success means that there’s less for you. Hold a door open, yield the right of way, look people in the eye and really listen.
Let’s try being decent and see what happens.